Joel Klein joined News Corp. in 2010 to help shape the future of education, but educators were still focused on his past. He'd made many enemies during the previous eight years as New York City's public schools chancellor. Teachers' unions considered him a bully and distrusted his new boss, Rupert Murdoch, whom they saw as a shark looking to profit off the public school system. Klein's conversations with administrators rarely got anywhere, and after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal broke—and Murdoch had him run the internal investigation into the mess—News Corp. lost a $27 million contract with New York City's schools. "A lot of the political fights I was involved in are polarizing," he says. "What people want is a pathway that's encouraging."
Now he hopes that pathway has opened.
It's called Amplify, and Klein unveiled it this spring. Amplify is two things: the first touch-screen tablet designed for the educational market and a tablet-based curriculum. Districts can buy both, or just one—running another company's curriculum on Amplify tablets, or running Amplify content on any other connected device. A Wi-Fi-enabled tablet sells for $299, with a $99 annual subscription fee to cover service and support, or there's an AT&T 4G-enabled $349 model that comes with a $179 fee. Curriculum prices vary.
By May, Amplify had one customer: a North Carolina school district. But it's early, and Klein still seems to relish the novelty of sitting down with a district, putting a tablet on the table, and talking about something other than himself. "It's very different and, for me, exhilarating," he says. We're in Amplify's offices in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo, just down the hall from Etsy—and a great cultural distance from News Corp.'s midtown Manhattan headquarters. "Instead of relitigating the same fights about the workforce, accountability, and school choice, we're beginning to see a growing coalescence about the potential power of technology to empower teachers and engage kids."
He's enjoying the benefit of having a tangible product, but his timing is good too. When Klein took this job three years ago, the iPad was new and a tablet's role in the classroom was unclear. Now more than 8 million iPads have been sold to classrooms, including 3.5 million in the last year, and a tipping point seems imminent. Murdoch has called education "a $500 billion market in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed," and Bill Gates has predicted that public budgets for textbooks, workbooks, and tests will shift toward hardware and software, creating a $9 billion market for educational technology within the next decade. Plus, 45 states have just adopted the same new curriculum standards—meaning they're shopping for new instructional materials.
News Corp. isn't alone in this race. Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Dell, Microsoft, textbook giants such as Pearson and McGraw Hill Education, and many new entrants are seeking a way in.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the sales push, many educators are still skeptical of tablets in the classroom—and Amplify seems designed to put them at ease. Its operating system gives teachers and schools an unprecedented level of control over the devices in students' hands. There is no home button, for example: Students can't just exit out of a math program the way they can close Angry Birds on an iPad. Instead, if a teacher hits her "eyes on teacher" button, any or every student's tablet in her classroom suspends; a message tells the student to look up. Or the teacher can call on a student randomly, and a message pops up on her screen. Or with just one click, a teacher can pose a multiple-choice pop quiz and see instant results, set a five-minute timer for an activity, or divide students into discussion groups. Or she can automatically give individualized homework assignments based on the day's performance.
Klein is betting that by continuing to roll out customized features in close consultation with teachers and students, Amplify can beat out consumer devices. In addition to its curriculum, it's also developing content for outside the classroom, beginning with 14 education-minded games from star indie designers. In one, you're a nanobot dreamily exploring a cell; in another, you're clicking on glucose inside the human body, racing to break it down into energy and carbon dioxide. "We're competing with Call of Duty and Temple Run," says Alan Dang, who produces the games. "If we can get these kids to spend 30 minutes a week, that's 32 additional hours of instructional time a year."
Taken together, Amplify presents a vision of an integrated, 21st-century classroom—though it's also very much a corporate-minded dream, in which one company provides every need. "My big question is whether the future belongs to monolithic systems or to frameworks," says Matt Greenfield, managing partner of the investment firm Rethink Education. There are competing visions: Some districts embrace "bring your own device" programs that have students signing into Khan Academy or Wikipedia from their own cell phones. Summit Public Schools, a California charter school network that is a favorite of Bill Gates, is building its own learning platform that is student driven and runs on laptops. Open-source champions, including the Mozilla Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media & Learning initiative, argue that children should be learning with hackable HTML, not locked-down iOS devices.
"It's very early in the market," Klein acknowledges. "I don't want to pretend I know exactly how this rolls out. But there's been an enormous amount of interest." And as long as that interest is on Amplify—and no longer on his baggage—that can look a lot like progress.
Photo by Lyle Owerko
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.